Endurance and Encouragement

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide, we might have hope. May God, who gives endurance and encouragement, give you ….” Romans 15:4-5a (NIV)

Sometimes life is like that — a time when you need desperately need endurance and encouragement. Maybe you are a mom with small kids, or caring for an elderly parent, or starting a new company, or battling a chronic condition. Sometimes we simply need to cry out to God for endurance and encouragement.

The other day, I was out on a long run. Where I live in the mid-west, there are few hills of substance. Often, instead, there are these long inclines that seem like they might go on forever.  Kind of like those seasons in life. Long, drawn out, uphill battles that seem like they may never end. Not dramatically uphill, mind you, where the challenge is glaringly overt. But a slight, subtle incline that wears on you and just continues.

While I was running, I came upon  one of those dreaded inclines and was reminded of this verse in Romans 15.  And I was reminded that God is a God of endurance and encouragement. He wants to provide that for us. He wants to give us hope. He has provided the Scriptures to teach us and to do just that.  He has provided many stories about members of our “cloud of witnesses” to bolster our perseverance.  (See Hebrews 11 & May 4, 2014 post.)

So I kept running up that darn incline. And I kept thinking about the saints of old and of their endurance and encouragement.  And you know what!? That darn incline did end.

Form First

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIV)

In exercise, form comes first. Whether you are an Olympic swimmer, a yoga guru or a weekend jogger, your form matters. It matters a lot. How you do your exercise — the motions and mechanics of your body movements — affects the results you receive (or fail to receive). Moreover, if your form is wrong, you can end up hurting yourself or someone else.

Take weight-lifting, for example. When you lift weights, form is paramount. Any decent trainer will tell you that. Correct form is more important than the amount of weight you lift, and correct form is more important than the number of repetitions done. Why? Because if your form is wrong, you not only fail to exercise the muscle group you desire to exercise, but you also run great risk of injuring yourself … or someone else.

And so it is with love. Love is paramount to followers of Jesus. Love comes first. If the things we do and the things we say are not rooted and grounded in love, then they can be harmful. If our practices — even seemingly good ones — are motivated by something other than love, after time we can end up hurting ourselves … or someone else. Just as we constantly check our form as we workout, we constantly need to check our motives and intentions. Are they based in love?

So the next time you are working out, pay attention to your form … and use it as an opportunity to consider the “form” of your heart.

Breathe

“The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Job 33:4 (NIV)

One of the things I love about exercise are the constant reminders (to self or to others) to breathe. Regardless of the type of exercise — running, weight-lifting, yoga, etc. — we constantly need reminders to breathe. For some reason, we all tend to hold our breath when the exercise gets tough.  We clench and try to gut it out and forget to breathe.

Isn’t that true in our spiritual journeys too? Isn’t it true that when we feel things getting tough, we “hold our breath” and try to gut it out. We clench and dig deep and rely on ourselves and our own ability to get through.  Why do we do that, when the very thing we need to do is to breathe?

It is the breath of the Almighty that gives me life. When “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7 NIV). It is His breath that gives me life. In the New Testament, the Greek word used for breath (“pneuma”) can also be translated “spirit” … so I can also say that it is His Spirit that gives me life.

So when I breathe, I invite the Spirit in. When I breathe, I let go of the need to gut it out and make it on my own. When I breathe, I invite the Spirit in, and I surrender to His life-giving and sustaining power. The breath of the Almighty gives me life!

Exercise as Worship 2

“Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31 (NIV) (see also Colossians 3:17, 23)

Sloth is another of the Seven Deadly Sins. Isn’t that interesting? Being lazy and failing to exercise our bodies was classified a sin in early Christian times. Try telling that to our culture today! But it is true, failing to care for our bodies is poor stewardship.  And exercise can be a form or worship — it’s just that our hearts and minds and intentions have to be in the right place.

1) God asks that whatever we do, we do as unto Him. That includes our time at the gym. So when you are working out, be all there. Give 110%! Hold nothing back. Give what you have at that moment (not more, but not less either). Jesus gave it all for us, so give your all for Him at each workout session.

2) Set reasonable and realistic goals for your workouts, then don’t give up. This does not mean to abuse yourself. First of all, the goals you make are to be reasonable goals (given your current fitness level, amount of sleep or sleep deprivation you are operating on, etc.).  Secondly, never giving up does not mean refusing to listen to your body. You can do both. For example, your goal was to run 3 miles but halfway through you don’t think you can make it. Instead of quitting, slow down or even walk for a little while if you have to, but don’t quit. Listen to and honor your body, but don’t quit. Jesus doesn’t quit on you, so don’t quit on Him.

3) Give your workout to God.  Give it to Him for His pleasure and for Him to use as He will.  Forget about vanity and the results you desire; trust Him with the outcomes. For when we workout as unto the Lord and take care of this amazing body He has given us, we honor Him.

Nourishment as Worship 2

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  1 Corinthians 10:31 (NIV)

Don’t you find it interesting that at least two of the Seven Deadly Sins are against the body? Personally, I am not Catholic or of Catholic decent … but I still find it very interesting that since early Christian times, these seven “sins” were emphasized … and two of them are sins against the body. I consider this to be further evidence of how God honors the body. And, even more interesting, are the two sins themselves: gluttony and sloth. In other words, they are input & output. Nourishment & exercise.

So let’s talk about gluttony.  Too much intake.  In American culture, where food is bountiful and indulgent, we have to be more mindful to view our intake in light of God’s glory. We need to prayerfully change our attitude and language.

1) Delete the word “full” from your vocabulary and mindset. Our culture talks all the time about being full, about eating until we are full, etc. The truth is that eating until you are full is eating too much. Consider this: when you are thirsty, do you drink until you are full and bloated? No. You drink simply until you are no longer thirsty. And so it should be with food. Don’t eat until you are full. Eat only until you are no longer hungry. Try it for a week, and I think you’ll be surprised at the results.

2) At mealtime, start with the food category that’s been lacking in your day’s input thus far. For most of us, that probably means starting our meals by eating with vegetables first.  Put into your stomach what your body needs first, then move onto other categories in the order of your needed daily requirements. (Consider the “plate” or “food pyramid” or something else as a daily guide). If you are no longer hungry by the time you get to the potato, for example, then you are no longer hungry … so stop. Save the potato for another day or another person, so that whether you eat or drink, you are doing it for the glory of God.

Team Jesus

“[A]part from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us throw off … and let us run …. ” Hebrews 11:40b-12:1 (NASB)

This passage in Hebrews has left me awe-struck. And I find it curious that, although I have read and studied it many times before, it has never struck me in the way it does now. God is using it in profound ways in my life.

Hebrews 11 & 12 discuss the reality — God’s reality — that how I live my Christian life matters not only to me and to God, but also to every one of God’s people in the course of history. How I run my race matters to Moses and Abraham and Paul and Peter, etc., etc. That blows my mind!

You see, for the most part, I have never really enjoyed participating in team sports. I have always loved fitness and exercise, but as for sports, I always gravitated to the individual sports. Too much pressure or something in the team sports. But now I am on Team Jesus … and the team members are not only those I interact with in the here and now, but also those who have ever played for Him throughout the ages. Given my history with teams, you’d think that might paralyze me, but actually it inspires me to run my race more intentionally — with more focus and inspiration. As only the Spirit can do, this passage is increasing my desire to play my role well because it can help the whole team.

God made people the crowning jewel of creation. And a God sent His one and only Son to restore and redeem people. On top of that, God desires to see all of creation redeemed and restored. I’m not sure what goes on in heaven, but I am now convinced that if those are the things that are on the heart of God, then those are the things that are on the heart of His saints in heaven. Just because their “at bat” is over, do you not think they are interested in how the rest of the team in doing? I do, for Hebrews tells us that apart from us, they will not be made perfect.

Therefore, let us through off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

Cloud of Witnesses

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us ….” Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

1) Whenever we see a “therefore” in Scripture, we always want to ask what it is there for.  In this passage, “therefore” refers back to the prior chapter’s description of the great faith displayed by so many of the saints who have gone before.  And more pointedly, it refers to the prior two verses in 11:39-40:  “All of the people we have mentioned received God’s approval because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.  For God had far better things in mind for us that would also benefit them, for they can’t receive the prize at the end of the race until we finish the race.”  (NLT)  In other words, our race is somehow inextricably linked to the glory or prize of all the saints.

Therefore, 

2) We are encouraged to throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles us.  It will help our race, and it will somehow contribute to our “prize” … but it will also somehow contribute to the prize of all the saints.  Wow.

 

What does this have to do with fitness?

1) It is another reminder that all of us is important.  Every aspect of us — our body, mind & spirit — and each and every part of our bodies is important, just like every Christ follower is important to the body of Christ.  (Reminds me of Romans 12:3-5 & 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.)

2) For me, it not only provides Biblical motivation to run my Christian race well, it also provides great fodder for my mind and my heart when I physically run … for I believe that God moves in my spirit while I move in my body (or should I say His body?), especially as I meditate upon Him & His truths.

Run with Perseverance

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes upon Jesus, the author & perfecter of our faith….”                       Hebrews 12:1b-2a (NIV)

When I first began following Christ, I mistakenly internalized this passage to mean “run your race with perfection ….” Of course, this interpretation led to frustration & agony on several levels. But, of course, that is not what the author intended. He intended to encourage us to run our race with perseverance & endurance.  As I’ve aged in my walk with Christ, the distinction has has become poignantly more clear and has several important implications to me, including:

1) I will struggle and stumble, sometimes I might want to quit, and I will fall down from time to time.  Running with perseverance doesn’t mean running with perfection. It means getting back up when I fall down and never giving up. It means keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus while I am running and even when I stumble. He is my motivation when I run, and He is my motivation to get back up again.

2) Running with perseverance & endurance implies it’s going to be a long race. Not a sprint; more like a marathon. And marathon runners will tell you, one of the keys to running such long distances is to stay relaxed. Relax your hands, your arms, your face — relaxing everything except the legs. And it takes thought and intentionality to stay relaxed during a long race. It’s unnatural. We want to push and drive and strain ahead on our own energy. But we won’t make it that way. Long distance runners have to train to stay relaxed. And so we, in our spiritual race, have to learn to stay surrendered. We have to seek to keep our hearts softened and surrendered to Jesus. It is not natural. We have to be intentional about it, but it’s the only way we will finish the race He has set before us.

Nourishment as Worship I

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12 (NIV)

Exercise has been a form of worshipping God for me as long as I can remember. Seeing nourishment as a related way to worship God is a more recent development for me — a way God has been growing me over the past several years. But every bit as equally, how we nourish our bodies is part of how we steward this amazing creation God has given us. Here are a few things God has shown me:

1) As 1 Corinthians 6 discusses, God has released us from His dietary laws. Some of us, however, may function better with certain dietary restrictions (e.g., I function better off dairy and gluten). Regardless, we have choices to make when we eat. And out of all of our options, some choices are more profitable than others, and God encourages us to make the more profitable choices. For many of us, one of the more profitable choices we can make would be to eat more fruits and vegetables (at least 50% of what we consume per day!)

2) God encourages us not to be mastered by anything. Whether it is potato chips, bread, chocolate, Coca-cola, or alcohol, God wants us to be free from slavery to anything. He wants us to be free to follow & adore Him. So the work begins to discern what has the potential to control and master us … & to instead make more profitable choices.

3) Food is made to fuel the body. Not the other way around. Food is meant to fuel the body. And while our societies have found ways to make food quite enjoyable, food’s main objective is to fuel the body. In our home, we often tell our young children that many of the things we eat are for our bodies, not for our mouths. So consider consuming more fuel for your body than you do pleasure for your mouth.

Exercise as Worship I

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.”  1 Corinthians 9:24 (NIV)

(By a very slight margin, you guys voted to hear about exercise as worship first. My next post, however, will address nourishment.)

Exercise as worship!? Isn’t that an oxymoron, you say? No, it’s not. Exercise can be an amazing pathway to meet with God. Here are a few tips to start:

1) Enter your exercise time in a posture of prayer. By that, I mean to begin your exercise time with an expectancy to meet with God. Just as you might enter a church service, a prayer meeting, a small group experience or serving opportunity … enter your exercise time with a desire and expectancy to meet with God. Set your thoughts on things above and look to Him and for Him during your workout. Talk to Him … or simply quiet your mind and listen for His still, small voice.

2) Equip yourself with a personal, inspirational verse. Mine is Philippians 4:13 — I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Whenever I’m getting tired, bored or just want to quit, I recite Philippians 4:13 to myself. When I am trying something new or hard and begin to doubt myself, I recite Philippians 4:13 and trust Him to help me do my best. There are many great verses. (Caution: this is not permission to try to do stupid stuff, calling on Jesus to help you. This is within the context of reasonable challenges appropriate for your current fitness level.)

3) Run your own race. By that, I mean to forget about the people around you and what they are doing. Don’t look at the speed they are running or the amount of weight they are lifting.  Run your own race. Choose appropriate challenges for yourself and stop comparing. It’s like what Jesus said to Peter when Peter asked about the fate of another disciple; Jesus said, “what’s that to you? You follow me.” (John 21:22). This is not a comparative race.  Focus only on you and God when you workout.  You have your race. They have theirs.

Acts of Worship

“Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — that is your true and proper worship.”   Romans 12:1  (NIV)

In view of the mercy that the Father has extended to us through Christ — in light of all we have received in Christ — Paul urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, as an act of worship. Is it odd to you that the body can be offered as an act of worship?

So often, the messages I have received from the Christian community is that the body is “flesh,” evil … or at the very least, insignificant. But I don’t believe that is Biblical. The body is a beautiful and incredible instrument that God has given and entrusted to us. It is in and through this amazing body that anything and everything we do flows. And I believe the way we care for our bodies can truly be an act of worship.

How? As with most things, it starts with a perspective shift.  A renewing of your mind.  As Paul continues in Romans 12, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Then we begin the work of integrating our renewed perspective into the daily way we do things.  As with any new spiritual practice, it takes intentionality, focus and repetition at first, but it soon becomes second nature.

So the first step is to ask God to help you renew your mind about the way you interact with and treat your body.  God is able to renew and restore damage done by others or by our own hands!  Then, take a step of faith consistent with your renewed perspective.  In the coming days I will begin posting some helpful ideas and practices in two key areas:  how we nourish and how we strengthen our bodies as spiritual acts of worship.  Use this poll to let me know which you want to hear about first.  

SHEMA

“Hear o Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NIV)

The SHEMA is an ancient Jewish prayer that is arguably one of the most important prayers is Judaism.  It is recited in the morning and evening prayer services.  It begins with “Hear o Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

As Christians (Judeo-Christians, to be specific), we have come to understand  The Lord as three in one.  God is one, and yet God is triune — Father, Son and Spirit.  There are three aspects, or three faces, of God … yet God is still one.  I believe that one of the ways God made us in His image is that He made us triune.  We too are one and yet triune — body, mind and spirit.  And God has asked us to worship and love Him with all of who we are.  God desires for us to love Him with our heart and our soul and our strength — with our complete triunity.

God didn’t have to make us with a body.  But He did.  God doesn’t have to give us a new body in the afterlife (why not let us be all spirit?), but He will.  (See e.g., Romans 8:23, 1 Corinthians 15:45-58, & 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.). For His reasons, God values the body.  And he asks us to love Him with all that He made us to be.  Let us worship and adore God with this body, while we still can.

God Causes the Growth

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” — 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 (NIV)

The risk in discussing fitness — in discussing fitness in a Christian context — is the implication that I am adopting the world’s standards of health & beauty as mine for fitness. May it never be! Anoerxia, bulimia, plastic surgery, enhancements and the like are all symptoms of a culture that is striving after an unrealistic ideal the world has set up.

Instead, I believe that each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made by God (see Psalm 139:14).  I believe God created each of us as unique individuals, and the bodies He gave to each of us are as unique as our individual thumbprints. God has an ideal “you” in mind — the one He created since the beginning of time. Yes, that includes your talents, abilities & contributions to His kingdom … but I believe it also includes the body He gave you. It includes the temple He entrusted to you. (See March 27, 2014 post).  He wants to see all aspects of you renewed and redeemed.

So the point is not to strive after (or settle for) thinness or beauty as the world defines it.  The objective is to care for this temple He has given us and, in the process, perhaps discover more of its true, inherent, God-given beauty.  Our job is to care for the temple — to nourish it, strengthen it, stretch it, cultivate it, care for it, replenish it. The results are up to God.

So forget the ideals and goals the world lays upon you.  You care for the temple. Leave the results to God.

Body as Sacred

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought with a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.”  I Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)

As a Christ-follower, I have heard numerous sermons on this verse over the years.  Almost all of them have been about one of three things:  sexual impurity, addiction or, perhaps, self-mutilation.  While I whole-heartedly agree that God doesn’t desire those three things for us or our bodies, I also believe He has so much more in mind.

What if we began a dialogue about treating our bodies as something beautiful and holy that God created?  (Which, of course, He did). What if we began to care for our bodies in kind, caring & respectful ways?  What if we thought about fueling it properly, strengthening and growing it to its fuller potential, and ensuring it received the rest that it needs?  What if we began to see our bodies as one of the most amazing gifts that God has given us and began to steward it accordingly?

I think it’s time to reclaim our bodies as something sacred.  How about you?